Interactive cognitive sub-systems as a theoretical basis for EMDR


Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a novel approach to treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It relies upon having clients access images of their traumas, negative self-schemas, emotions, and somatic memories and reprocessing these to resolution of the traumatic memory. The simultaneous linking of these components is accompanied by alternating stimulations of the brains hemispheres using either auditory tones, tactile sensation, or rapid eye movements across the visual field. Successful completion of the treatment results in trauma images fading, positive cognitive shift, reduction of negative affect, and disappearance of somatic sensations. Shapiro (1995) proposed an 'accelerated processing model' for EMDR that essentially pulls together the different strands of the treatment in a coherent way. It suggests that the brain heals itself, as with tissue damage, and changes in symptomatology are always from negative to positive. What Shapiro's model does not do is operationally define her concepts and explain the way changes in dysfunctional information occur. For example, the EMDR model, as with Beck's (1987) Clinical Cognitive Model, accepts that clients place new meaning on dysfunctionally stored information, but lacks explanation of how this occurs: i.e. the shift from irrational to rational beliefs, and from 'cold' to 'hot' cognitions. This paper rectifies the difficulties the 'accelerated processing model' has in acting as a theoretical basis for EMDR. It describes firstly the received wisdom on the neurophysiological, and psychological correlates of PTSD. It then goes on to examine the treatment components considered necessary for the effective resolution of the disorder. In its final phase, the paper considers how well models of information processing explain the acquisition and maintenance of PTSD. It adopts a modification of the Ingerchanging Cognitive Subsystems (ICS) approach (Teasdale & Barnard, 1993), a theory based in cognitive science, to operationally define EMDR's component parts and its process in the treatment of PTSD. The ICS approach is recommended as a useful way to conceptualise the maintenance of PTSD and a strong theoretical basis for EMDR.






Michael Paterson

Original Work Citation

Paterson, M. (2001, May). Interactive cognitive sub-systems as a theoretical basis for EMDR. Presentation at the 2nd EMDR Europe Association Conference, London, England




“Interactive cognitive sub-systems as a theoretical basis for EMDR,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed January 29, 2022,

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